ANNAPOLIS -- Anne Arundel County residents have always jealously guarded the 430 miles of shoreline that made their county a Chesapeake Bay retreat long before it evolved into a suburban haven. So it is not surprising that during this election year, environmental protection consistently tops the list of local voters' concerns.

But when they go to the polls Nov. 6 to elect the next county executive, they will be choosing between two relatively recent converts to the gospel of conservation. During their political careers, neither County Council member Theodore J. Sophocleus nor former state delegate Robert R. Neall distinguished himself as a dedicated champion of the environment, local activists say.

Trying to woo the environmental vote, both candidates have released lengthy position papers detailing the steps they would take to keep pollution from entering Anne Arundel's seven major rivers and to restore a landscape scarred by rapid development.

"What the environmentalists look for is contrast" between the two candidates, said John Kabler, of Annapolis, who is regional director for Clean Water Action, a national conservation group. "If Neall hasn't done anything since 1986 {the year he left the state legislature} and Sophocleus hasn't made the environment a major component of his political record, and both of them are making pretty good promises, then it is not easy for us."

Sophocleus, 51, the Democratic nominee, has had some success in convincing environmentalists that he is the better gamble. Last month, the Linthicum pharmacist and former civic leader won the endorsement of the Sierra Club largely on the strength of his reputation as a conciliator who had shown a willingness to work with community groups during his eight years on the County Council.

Conversely, Republican candidate Neall, 42, of Davidsonville, who recently left his job as a vice president for Johns Hopkins Health Systems, has been struggling to overcome his image as an environmental foe. That image was formed -- unfairly, according to Neall -- during the last four years of his 12-year tenure in the Maryland General Assembly when he voted against bills that the environmental movement counts among its most important achievements of the 1980s.

Activists who are now supporting Sophocleus acknowledge that he was not one of the seven-member council's leading environmentalists. Until recently, he never had sponsored a major environmental bill, preferring to make a name for himself through constituent service.

Early in his career, Sophocleus voted against a bill that would have blocked construction of Marley Station Mall, a project some environmentalists opposed because it was located at the headwaters of an ailing creek. He also opposed a resolution that the council ultimately passed, supporting a local senator's efforts to put a 5-cent deposit charge on cans and bottles.

Some county officials also said Sophocleus was reluctant to support bills that might be harmful to business interests. "Impact fees is a classic case," said one county official who asked not to be named. "As it came around and citizen groups were for it and it was clear there were four votes, he said okay, he would be the fifth."

Still, leaders of environmental groups say what they remember is that Sophocleus tended to vote with them after he was lobbied on most major issues, such as a stiff sediment control ordinance. During the last year, he also sponsored a woodlands preservation measure and another barring industrial piers from creeks.

"Ted always took a balanced approach. It wasn't that you had to twist his arm, but he never jumped on the bandwagon," said Mary Rosso, president of the Maryland Waste Coalition, and an active Sophocleus supporter. "But he could be talked to and ultimately, what with amendments and what not, he would usually come around."

Neall, on the other hand, has been dogged by his 1984 opposition to a bill creating a commission to devise strict building limits in so-called "critical areas" of the Chesapeake Bay, and his vote the next year against another bill banning phosphate additives from commercial detergents sold in Maryland.

Those positions -- together with his opposition to a moratorium on fishing for rockfish and a ban forbidding hunters to use lead shot -- earned Neall the lowest rating of any Anne Arundel legislator on a 1986 scorecard prepared by the League of Conservation Voters.

In debates, Neall has offered detailed explanations for these votes, saying that while he agreed with the goals of the bills, he felt their methods were unfair, illegal or ineffective. Speaking of his vote against the critical areas bill, he said, "Every single legislator knew that you had to vote for that bill. It was political suicide not to, I should know. Maybe that's the biggest knock against me -- I don't do what is politically expedient if I think it is wrong."

Neall also says that as one of the General Assembly's leading fiscal analysts, he was absorbed with the state's savings and loan crisis during his last term and had little time to devote to environmental issues, a situation that would not be repeated if he were elected county executive.

Nevertheless, he says his actions have been unfairly painted in toxic tones because his opponents have chosen to focus on one or two "litmus test" votes rather than to analyze his entire record, which includes long-standing support for recycling, funds for open space and funds to upgrade failing sewerage systems, a major cause of pollution.

According to Kabler and Rosso, they and other activists would have been willing to forgive Neall if he admitted making an error. His failure to do that, they said, has pushed many environmentalists firmly into Sophocleus's camp.

"Neall has refused to eliminate the contrast {with Sophocleus}, in fact he has built it up," Kabler said. "That not only gives us a clear opponent, but it makes us wonder what kind of county executive he will be if he is so stubborn to the point of being self-destructive."

Other activists, however, said they are not overly concerned about the outcome of the race because they believe the victor will have no choice but to show environmental sensitivity.

WHERE THEY STAND ON ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES

Theodore J. Sophocleus Democrat

Currently a County Council member. He has been endorsed by the Sierra Club largely on the strength of his reputation as a conciliator who has shown a willingness to work with community groups. During eight years on the council, Sophocleus was not known as one of its leading environmentalists and, until recently, never sponsored a major conservation measure. But with a few exceptions, he usually voted the green line.

Robert R. Neall Republican

The former state delegate is struggling to overcome his image as a staunch foe of environmental protection stemming from several votes he cast as a legislator. In debates, he has offered detailed explanations for his votes against two major bills -- one to limit development in so-called critical areas and another to ban phosphates from commercial detergents sold in the state -- saying that although he supported the intent of the bills, he did not agree with their methods.

CAMPAIGN PROMISES Both candidates have released position papers outlining the steps they would take to protect the environment if elected.

Sophocleus:

Would expand stringent land-use regulations, now in effect only in critical areas, countywide.

Pledges to initiate a "no-net-loss" of trees policy for development projects and have county plant 1 million trees during his first term as part of a reforestation effort.

Wants the county to recycle 35 percent of its waste by the end of his first term, 15 percent more than is required under state law, and to build a composting facility in the county. Also pledges that government offices will recycle 75 percent of their waste and use recycled paper products.

Would fund a full-time environmental coordinator for the schools and create an environmental ombudsman position to field citizen complaints. Also pledges to add sediment control inspectors.

Neall:

Would improve old stormwater management systems to prevent pollution-causing runoff into streams and creeks. Program would be funded through county bonds and a fee charged to homeowners in areas targeted for improvement.

Pledges to sponsor legislation giving citizens legal standing to challenge location of facilities such as landfills and incinerators in neighboring counties that border their neighborhoods.

Would create a Department of the Environment using existing positions to give residents a central point of contact to register complaints and to ensure that county goverment projects meet state and local regulations for limiting environmental impacts.

Would increase the capacity of sewage treatment pumping stations to prevent sewage spills that harm water quality.

Wants to require planners to develop comprehensive management plans for guiding development in sensitive watershed areas.